February 25, 1864 (Thursday)
Two Federal columns had descended from Chattanooga, Tennessee, marching twenty-five miles south. The right, commanded by General John Palmer had arrayed themselves before Tunnel Hill along the western slope of Rocky Face Ridge. There, they came up against two divisions of well entrenched Confederates, hurried north from nearby Dalton, Georgia by Joe Johnston. While the right Union column probed for a weakness, the left, led by Charles Cruft, wound their way to the eastern slope, and would have brought themselves practically behind the two Rebel divisions facing Palmer had Johnston not sent forward two additional divisions to block their way. The day previous was spent skirmishing, and it was hoped by Palmer, in command of the entire affair, that this day would bring about a general engagement that would dislodge not only the enemy troops at Tunnel Hill, but would drive Johnston’s entire Army of Tennessee out of Dalton and farther south into Georgia.
“Brisk skirmishing commenced between the picket-lines early in the morning,” wrote Union General Jefferson C. Davis, commanding one of Palmer’s Divisions on the western slope. Meanwhile, on the other side of Rocky Face Ridge, General Cruft was advancing two of his brigades to join his most advanced, sent forward the previous day. He had received orders from Palmer instructing him to “push the column toward Dalton and attack any force that might be met.”
Viewing the two Confederate divisions, Cruft decided not to take any chances, and to wait for another division to arrive as support. For the interim, Cruft formed the division into a line of battle, making preparations to attack. As this was happening, the Confederates in his front launched an attack of their own – though with only their skirmishers. The Federal pickets scurried back with rumors of additional Rebels on their tongues.
Cruft immediately halted any plans for an advance, throwing his own line on the defensive. As they made their hasty preparations, the prodigal division, helmed by Absalom Baird, arrived, followed swiftly by General Palmer. Together, Cruft and Palmer spent the early morning overlooking the Rebels before them. Palmer decided that stay with Cruft’s original plan, ordering Baird’s Division to hold the right.
Placing the troops took time, and it wasn’t until well after 11am that Palmer finally gave the orders to advance. Before long, the skirmishers were heavily engaged.
“The lines were pressed steadily on for somewhat over a mile,” wrote Cruft in his report. “At this point the enemy occupied a steep wooded ridge in our front in considerable force. It was successfully carried by the Second and Third Brigades without breaking step, the enemy falling back to a ridge beyond. Upon obtaining the crest of the first ridge and commencing the descent the brigade of direction was halted about 1pm by command of Major-General Palmer and the line adjusted thereto.”
They had gained some ground, but had lost some formation in doing so. While the lines were straightened, the artillery began their work, which was met by their Rebel counterparts. Palmer and Cruft peered from this ridge to the next, where they could plainly see the two Confederate divisions. As the hours slipped away, it was obvious to both that they were outnumbered. Regardless, Palmer ordered the right of the line to attack, but it was no use.
Neither, however, did the Rebels attack. The Federals erected breastworks as best they could, huddling behind in anticipation, but though the enemy seemed to threatened, no counterattack was ever made. As darkness neared, the Confederate artillery opened a rapid fire upon them, which was met by the Federals pound for pound.
After dark, Palmer finally made the decision to call off the attack. They would not retire back to Chattanooga – not just yet, but there was not going to be an assault; the Rebels would not be driven from Dalton. Cruft moved his divisions back and out of the way of the Confederates, taking up positions north of Tunnel Hill.
Throughout the day, on the western side of Rocky Face Ridge, Palmer’s two divisions did little in his absence. The woods had caught fire between their positions and that of the Rebels, and the smoke settled thickly among the trees. But around 3pm, near when Cruft made the attack with his right, General Davis heard the fighting and thought to test the enemy’s lines in his own front.
Soon, his skirmishers were “warmly engaged, the enemy resisting their strong points with great vigor.” Though the Rebels contested the ground, Davis’ men would not be stopped until they were within sight of the rifle pits. All three Confederate batteries opened fire, as did most of the infantry. As the Rebels behind the breastworks held the Yankees in place, the Southern artillery played upon their flanks, sending regiment after regiment reeling back. Like Cruft on the other side of the ridge, Davis concluded that any attack was pointless.
Late that night, General George Thomas, commanding the Union army arrived at Davis’ headquarters. He had taken ill the week previous, but was able to muster enough strength to join in on the expedition at its very end.
And it was the end. The next day, the Union cavalry would skirmish on either side of Rocky Face Ridge, but nothing more. On the 27th, the entire force would be marched back to Chattanooga, where they would arrive on the 28th. General Palmer’s expeditionary corps lost 43 killed, 267 wounded, with 35 captured or missing.
The point of the whole affair was to keep Joe Johnston’s Confederates occupied while William Tecumseh Sherman’s two corps slashed their way through Mississippi. Though it indeed pulled potential Rebel troops from their possible front, by the time General Thomas finally got around to ordering Palmer out of Chattanooga, Sherman was on his way back to Vicksburg. At the very least, it uncovered what was then the enemy position. Whether or not this information would come in handy over the spring campaign season was still anybody’s guess.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 32, Part 1, p421, 426, 433, 453, 456-458. [↩]